Sunday, April 10, 2011

Paranormal Profiteering

The popularity of ghost hunting TV shows has brought opportunities for some people to "cash in" on the paranormal. Unfortunately, much of the general public (and even some "investigators") do not recognize that such TV shows favor ratings over reality and editing over evidence. These shows feature poor protocols for investigating, poor analysis of "evidence" and their audiences are being fooled into thinking they are watching valid research. Add investigators with interesting personalties, and you create fans who will rabidly defend these shows, even if techniques or conclusions defy common sense. I've met several of such TV paracelebs, and yes, a few seem really nice and fun to talk with. But it doesn't mean they are good - or even honest - investigators. It certainly doesn't excuse misleading the audiences with questionable or perhaps even manufactured evidence.

As investigators, we need to recognize entertainment vs. valid investigating and research and strive to educate others about the distinction. There was a show that initially, I felt was an asset to paranormal research. They ditched the psychics and metaphysics, debunked orbs as dust bunnies and approached investigations from a skeptical standpoint. However, that changed over seasons and now they present "evidence" that they would have tossed out in the first season. They sold out. Many shows that followed did the same.

I have talked to several team founders, including my own group's, who have been approached by TV shows. But the producers they talked to made it clear that they wanted more sensational cases, and did not give the investigators control over content or ownership of their own evidence. So they passed on their "big break". From their experiences, it is clear to me that show producers exaggerate, edit, and flat out manufacture claims and evidence in order to create a packaged product that sells.

The popularity of TV paracelebs have spawned conferences and events where you can pay to meet or even "investigate" with your favorite paranormal personality. At least some of these events are actually beneficial: some have been set up where part of the profits go to restoring historical locations. As someone who has volunteered in different historical societies, I'm all for that. Some also provide basic "ghost hunting" seminars. While I can't agree on all the techniques or equipment they discussed, I can say the seminars I have attended at least covered safety, respecting property, and that orbs are not ghosts. But again, just because someone is on TV or the radio, or wrote a book, does not make them an expert, nor does it mean they are presenting valid information. (Please refer to my post "Paranormal Experts"). They are there to make some money.

As various supposed haunted locations attract interest after being featured on TV, many of them are now charging a hefty fee for groups to investigate. Riding on those coattails are lesser-known locations that will also let local groups investigate - for a price. Again, there is good and bad. I can support historical locations who use the profits towards maintenance and restoration. However, there are cases where someone says their restaurant is haunted and charge gullible groups, not for valid research, but for building their business. Unfortunately, whether on purpose or not, some of these places are perpetuating false evidence as well as unsubstantiated stories. They encourage orbs, bad recordings and information "validated" by psychics. Again, this appeals to paranormal enthusiasts, but is a detriment to legitimate researchers. It also spreads misinformation, and even fear, to the general pubic.

The group I belong to went to such a location recently. This location was featured in a couple of popular TV shows and has been mentioned by many paranormal groups as an active location. After our investigation, I think the most active thing there is imagination. We were able to debunk several of the claims (including experiences featured on the shows) using simple common sense. The owner set up the place for maximum creepiness. There were strategically placed dolls, scarecrows, cut outs and coat racks, so as people navigate in the dark and come upon these unexpectedly, they get startled. There were other props, like wheelchairs and chairs placed in random spots, and fake cockroaches spread throughout the floors. My favorite "prop" was a harmless vase of fake flowers placed in the hallway. Thru IR, the vase is nearly invisible, and the flowers look like a white blob floating above the floor. In addition, many of the stories, were just that: stories with no documentation. So some of the most famous "ghosts" of that location are likely only products of fantasy.

This is not to say the place doesn't have paranormal activity. It very well might. But my point is that the owner of the location is using misinformation and false evidence to promote it as legitimately haunted to lure not just enthusiasts, but serious investigators, and then charging a hefty fee for them to investigate. Some may think I am just bitter from a case of "buyer's remorse". Not really. I had already found alternative explanations for a couple major claims before I set foot there (which were confirmed). But this isn't the first such location I have been to, and what set this one apart was use of props, and the amount of undocumented stories and specious claims supported by para celebs, but not research.

A lot of major cities have "ghost tours" where you walk around historic neighborhoods and are told ghost stories and claims to back them up. I personally love these tours, because of the history and folklore. However, they also are in it for money, which means they encourage false evidence. On every such tour I've been on, some person will snap a picture, and "catch" an orb. Which isn't surprising when you have groups of 10-20 walking and kicking up dust. They also catch "light anomalies" which again, is not surprising , since they usually take place after dark, and the shutter speed in automatic cameras will slow down and will create long exposure pictures. But the tour guides actually encourage the false notion that these pictures captured something paranormal, therefore spreading misinformation.

Some of these "haunted" locations and ghost tours actually guarantee a paranormal experience. There is absolutely no way anyone can guarantee a genuine experience. Period. Unfortunately, the way some unscrupulous location or tour owners are achieving these impossible results is by promoting false evidence or, in some case, even rigging the place.

Once such location is Moss Beach Distillery in California. For many decades, the story of a blue lady haunting the location was associated with the place. There were claims from many people, including respected parapsychologists, over the years that seemed to support a valid haunting. Unfortunately, several years ago the owners decided to rig the building to replicate the claims. Chandeliers are rigged to swing, there are fans to blow ghostly breezes on patrons, and they even have a mirror rigged for a ghostly face to appear. Unfortunately, such manipulation discredits any true experience anyone may have at that location now.

Sometimes locations don't have to use mechanical means to rig a place. All it takes is a good, believable story that has been told and retold so many times it becomes engrained as fact. The Myrtle's Plantation in Louisiana is such a place. The story of Chloe is well-known among paranormal enthusiasts and has been featured on TV shows and in books luring investigators: Chloe was a house slave with whom the owner was having an affair. One day he caught her eavesdropping and cut off her ear as punishment. She did not want to go back to the fields, so she came up with a desperate plan. She baked a birthday cake for one of the owner's children and laced it with oleander leaves to make the family sick, so that she could nurse them back to health and keep her place in the house. But the plan backfired because she used too much of the leaves and the wife and children died from the poisoned cake. Fearing punishment for her actions, fellow slaves captured Chloe and hung her from a tree in front of the house. A tragic story and certainly a recipe for ghosts. One problem: it didn't happen. There is no record of either a house or field slave named Chole in the property and slave holding records. Oh, and the inconvenient fact that the wife and children died from yellow fever, not a poisoned cake.

Even when presented with facts, some stories and hoaxes refuse to die. An example is the Amityville Horror. Several careers were built from that hoax, so it's understandable why those who profit from it would want to perpetuate it as fact. The media was there to fuel the sensational story, but they were conveniently absent when facts and even admissions began to surface, proving the story was fabricated by George Lutz and Butch DeFeo's (the murderer who slaughtered his entire family in that house) lawyer. But today many in the general public still believe the book and subsequent movie was based on real events.

Another problem is that some paranormal investigators or groups are charging clients for their services. As I pointed out in my post "Paranormal Experts" there is no accredited training or certification to do so. This field is all theory and speculation at this point. All we are doing is collecting data and forming an opinion. No one has proven ghosts exist, or even what they are. Some groups not only charge for investigating, but they also charge for "cleansings". Again, there is no evidence for these unsubstantiated claims. One group even goes so far as to investigate (at a higher fee) if you are in process of purchasing a house so you know if you're future home is haunted or not. Here's the problem: as mentioned before, no proof of ghosts exist. Photos containing light artifacts are not proof of ghosts. EVPs are not proof of ghosts because there are alternative explanations. The problem is the seller and realtor can lose a sale over false evidence while this group makes money off of it.

There have been ghost hunting "certification" classes cropping up. For hefty fee, you can take courses from people who have no more qualifications than you and get a worthless piece of paper to hang on your wall. If you want a certification, print one up on your computer. It has the same validity.

Paranormal profiteering has also gone to ridiculous new lows. On Ebay, there have been "certified haunted" dolls and other items for sale, as well as ghosts in a bottle, and succubi available for purchase. There are people who charge for Frank's Box sessions. Again, there is no proof at all that ghosts communicate through such devices. In fact, there are plausible explanations for the "messages": paradoelia, phoneme restoration effect, formant noise, yet some people make money off of it.

Some may argue that if people want to waste their money that's their problem. But it goes deeper than that. Paranormal profiteering is creating misperceptions as well as fear in the general public. It creates a disruption of valid research of the paranormal. The reality is, there are people living in fear because of false information. We still deal with clients who think they have a ghost just because of an orb showed up in their home picture! As investigators we sometimes face an uphill battle when we present logical explanations for claims, but clients argue, "But I saw this on TV....". As we strive to educate, we are constantly battling the piles of lies put out by people who only care about their their egos and wallets, and not the damage they are doing.

I have no problem with people making money off of the current paranormal craze, I just have a problem with those who do it by perpetuating misinformation and the outright manufacturing of "experiences".


Wednesday, April 6, 2011

My Flashlight Experiment

My group investigated a well-know location last week. In one area, a few of our investigators decided to do a flashlight session. As some may already know, I am skeptical about flashlight communication, but I am open to be proven wrong.

If you are unfamiliar with flashlight sessions, what happens is investigators take a flashlight (the preferred seems to be the MagLite) and unscrew it to the point the light can come on at the slightest touch. Supposedly, spirits can communicate by turning it on and off.

The flashlight was set on a chair away from investigators. The question was asked, "Is there anyone in here with us?" and the flashlight turned on. Pretty impressive. Then there was a request to shut the flashlight off. It flickered, and after several seconds it did, indeed, turn off. Again, impressive. But the process repeated itself in rather regular intervals - about a minute in between, according to my watch. I pointed this out and the leader invited me to inspect the flashlight. It was not unscrewed far enough that I considered it loose, but I was able to screw it slightly tighter. The light did not come back on after that. So either a) I pissed off the ghost and they didn't want to "talk" anymore or b) the flashlight was loose enough before I tightened it.

Recently, I had seen theories that the flashlights in this modified state are coming on and off due to how the unit heats up and cools down. As it cools it contracts, and the contacts touch, turning on the light. The heat from the light warms it enough to expand and therefore the contacts lose touch and the light goes off. I think the fairly regular intervals support this theory.

So, I went out and bought a Mini MagLite, exactly like the one used during our investigation. I screwed it as tight as possible and set it down. I waited for 30 minutes, but the light didn't come on, even when I asked it nicely. Not really surprising. So I loosened it up to the point it would come on at the slightest touch. I quickly learned if you place it in this state on a hard surface, vibrations will make it turn on. So I took a towel and placed the flashlight on it and the vibrations no longer affected it. I sat back and waited with my watch and notebook in hand. I didn't interact at all with the flashlight. In fact, I was watching TV and purposely not focusing on it. Within a couple of minutes, the flashlight turned on. Within a minute it turned off. This was repeated 10 times during the duration of my little experiment. Here is my findings: the intervals between times it turned on by itself and off again lasted between 32 and 58 seconds, averaging 45.6 seconds. The length of time it stayed illuminated lasted between 27 and 92 seconds, averaging 54.9 seconds. This timing was similar to our flashlight session at our investigation.

I recognize one informal experiment and comparing it to one session doesn't prove anything. But I do think it yielded enough similarities that warrant some consideration during future sessions. I hope to conduct future experiments in various conditions to see if results vary with temperature and humidity.

A few nights later I went to repeat the experiment. I unscrewed it to the same point. But this time, it didn't light up. For a moment there, I wondered if my living room was actually haunted! But then I remembered I had been holding the flashlight for some time before I started the experiment the previous time. Therefore, it had been warmer than the surrounding air. So, I held the flashlight to warm it up a bit. Then I set it down again. Within a couple of minutes, it turned on "by itself". The pattern was very similar to the first experiment. Relating this back to the flashlight session during the investigation, the investigator had carried the flashlight in question in his pocket before the session. So again, this correlates to my observations I made in my informal experiments. It also answered the question one of our investigators had: "What made it turn on in the first place?" The warm flashlight expanded, so the contacts were separated. Once it cooled down, it contracted, and therefore the contacts touched, turning on the light.

ANOTHER UPDATE: While shopping at a retail store, I saw a purple Mini Maglite. Since I love the color purple, I decided to buy this one and donate my boring black one to our group to have on hand for forgetful members. Anyway, I set up the same experiment, in the same various locations in the house (including the cellar, which is much cooler and is more humid) and had the same results with my pretty purple one. In other words, I can rule out my black Maglite is faulty or that I only get these results with that particular flashlight. I should also add since my initial informal experiments mentioned above, I have had similar results at other locations: a bookstore (with no reports, but I wanted to show a group how flashlights can reliably turn on "by themselves"), a public historical building with reports that we investigated, a large office building, which we have investigated a few times and believe there may be activity, and most recently, a reportedly haunted B&B in Gettysburg.

Thank you to my friend Angela for directing me to this video.  It shows several experiments, including detailed explanations, how a Maglite can turn on and off due to a heating & cooling cycle.  It is not as simple as I previously thought, as it also involves contact physics and oxidization:

And to be clear:  I am not saying it explains all flashlight experiences, but it certainly supports the theory (and my little informal experiments) that heating/cooling can cause the light to go on and off.